Japan vs. Korea

Now that I’ve finally recounted my not so recent trips to Japan, I want to talk about some differences I noticed between Japan and Korea. Disclaimer: On the off chance there’s someone reading this blog that I’m not related to, I’m not saying one country is better than the other, or that I know all there is to know about either country. I genuinely like both countries. I’m simply making observations. Please don’t send me hate mail.

Now that that’s over with, here goes:

1. We were really surprised by how little English we came across in Japan. In Korea, it’s everywhere. You can get along pretty easily with knowing little to no Korean. But in Japan, we found ourselves struggling a couple of times.

2. The Japanese respect the queue much more than Koreans. And personal space in general. It’s one of my pet peeves in Korea, but I have to go with it because I know I’m just a visitor in their country. But it makes me NUTS. It was nice not to have any ajummas mowing me down or standing so close to me in line that I can feel their breath on the back of my neck.

3. The subway system in Korea is much more user friendly than in Japan (and cheaper!). The subway lines in Korea are all owned by one company and you can get from one side of the city to the other quite easily and painlessly. But in Japan, there are several subway lines that have different owners and transferring can be a bit tricky. It can be very confusing because certain lines only take certain tickets/cards. And the name or color of the lines doesn’t always match up with the name or color on the subway map. This caused us trouble on more than one occasion.

4. We really enjoyed the diverse architecture in Japan. In Korea, many buildings (and even cities) look really similar. Giant grey buildings looming all around. Apartment blocks everywhere, but seldom an actual house. Most of the buildings are fairly modern. In Japan, it was really refreshing to see an array of buildings in many different styles and from many different time periods.

5. In Japan taxis are stupid expensive and in Korea they are stupid cheap. Although we noticed a lot of  the taxi drivers in Japan spoke English decently and tended to be more friendly than Korean taxi drivers.

6. In Korea, make-up shops abound. Every major street will have not one, but likely 4-5 different make-up chains. I could probably name 10 different chains off the top of my head. The make-up is usually pretty inexpensive, good quality and has adorable packaging. The best part is, they always give you free samples. And the more you buy, the more free samples you get. It’s one of my favorite things about Korea. So I was really excited to visit Japan to see what they had to offer in that department. To my disappointment, Japan does not have the same make-up culture as Korea. I didn’t see any independent make-up shops and purchased no make-up. *sobs*

I am sure there are many more differences than these six, but what I’ve mentioned is what The Brit and I noticed in our short time visiting Japan. I was inspired to write this post by a video posted on Eat Your Kimchi (my favorite Korea based vloggers). They did a joint vlog with a girl named Rachel who lives in Japan but has visited Korea several times. It was interesting to hear their different perspectives. If you’re interested in checking out what they have to say, here is Eat Your Kimchi’s vlog about it, and here is Rachel & Jun’s vlog.

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Japan 2.2

Kyoto is much slower paced than Tokyo. It has a much more traditional feel to it. It’s more like the Japan I pictured in my head (thanks, Hollywood!). We were staying near Nijo Station and Nijo Castle. Our Air BnB there was really nice, albeit really tiny. But we had the whole place to ourselves, which was nice, and a great view of the mountains in the background. It was really near a liquor store, which probably sounds insignificant. Unless you’re an alcoholic. Then it’s probably pretty significant. And now I’m probably going to sound like an alcoholic. But I hadn’t set foot in a proper liquor store in years (see Mom, no need to worry!). Korea’s alcohol selection is fairly limited and insanely expensive if you’re not drinking Korean alcohol. And you mostly buy it at grocery stores and convenience stores. So we spent a good 30-45 minutes just wandering around going, “Look! It’s _______! I haven’t had that in ages. And it’s so cheap!” Except for my sister. She’s was like, “What’s the big deal? I can do this every day but Sunday!” (She lives in Texas.) We were so overwhelmed with choice, that it took us forever to decide what to get. One night we bought some cheap wine and some meat, cheese and bread from the nearby grocery store (because these things are also cheap in Japan but not in Korea) and had it for dinner one night. (It was only one night, Mom. Calm down!) And there was a great little bakery down the street at which we had breakfast every morning. I love good bread. And it’s so hard to find in Korea without sugar on it.

On our first day we headed over to the Silver Temple, which is not actually silver. You should just know that now. The temple itself was not super exciting, but I thought the grounds were really beautiful. It’s also at the beginning of the Philosopher’s Walk, which runs next to a canal and has many temples along the way that you can stop at, if you so desire. We only popped into one – Honen In – which was exceptionally beautiful and eerily empty. We sort of felt like we shouldn’t be there. But it was nice to be able to enjoy a temple without all the crowds of the more popular destinations. We promised our father that we would do much philosophizing on this walk, so of course we had to stop for a photo sesh of our pensiveness. Pics or it didn’t happen! Overall, we enjoyed the walk, but made the fatal mistake of not bringing enough water, because there are not many places to stop along the way for more. And also for taking this trip during the summer, because it was hotter than Hades. I legit thought I was going to pass out and potentially die by the end. Also, when you come to the end of the walk, you are basically in a neighborhood full of houses. So if you’re in desperate need of water and food, much like we were, you are shit out of luck. We started wandering down random streets to try and find a main street, but weren’t having much luck. In the end, a cab driver stopped and told us to get in because he saw that our struggle was that real. He took us back to the Silver Temple, where there are lots of places to get food and water. So if you’re heading to Kyoto and want to do the Philosopher’s Walk, I highly recommend starting where we finished and finishing at the Silver Temple. And bring LOTS of water. Incidentally, we also made our way to the Golden Temple, which is, in fact, gold. The temple itself is quite stunning, but beyond that there’s not much to see.

One day we went to Nijo Castle, which is the first castle I’ve been to that has not only one, but TWO moats. We enjoyed speculating what they might keep in the moats to ward off enemies. I remain confident that they imported alligators. The castle was nice, but we probably only spend about 45 minutes there. We had stuff to do! I will say that the archways at Nijo are gorgeous. They are black with gold fixtures and painted in colors that remind of a hand painted bowl I was given from Russia.

That evening we were trying to find a good sushi spot near Shijo Station. We found a restaurant on Trip Advisor, but unfortunately, so did everybody else. The line was out the door. The reviews were decent, but the prices were more than we were used to paying for sushi in Japan and we were too hungry to wait. So I did a quick Google search and stumbled upon a joint called Musashi Sushi. It had a short wait and good prices. The sushi was so good (and cheap!) that we ended up eating there twice. I felt adventurous and tried a little horse meat sushi. It was…interesting. I would not recommend the mane, which (big shock) comes from the neck where the mane grows. It was disgusting chewy. But all of the fish sushi was stellar. Near Shijo is a teeny, tiny, little alley called Pontocho. It is an adorable alley lined with restaurants and photo ops. I wanted to pop in one of the restaurants, but they looked too expensive there wasn’t any visible English. So I took a million photos instead. I really enjoyed the Shijo area. In hindsight, we should have stayed there. It is pretty centrally located, and many of the things we wanted to do were there or within walking distance. There’s a small river, and the banks fill up with people in the evening and there are many restaurants with outdoor patios overlooking the water. One alley near the station is famous for geisha sightings. We actually saw one getting out of a car and heading into a restaurant. The juxtaposition of the geisha and the car was pretty interesting. I would have liked to have gotten a photo, but I had read before hand that they don’t care for all of the tourists that act like paparazzi.

Also, while in the Shijo area, we decided to give waygu beef a try. It’s like Kobe beef, but cheaper. Kobe beef comes from Kobe, Japan (near Kyoto) and is supposed to be magical. By some accounts, Kobe cows are fed beer, listen to classical music and get daily massages. I don’t know how much of this is true, but watching this video had me convinced. If you think you’ve had Kobe beef in the States, you probably haven’t. There was a trade embargo or something, and so until very recently you couldn’t get it in the States. Despite tons of restaurants swearing up and down that they serve it. Be wary, people! We really wanted to try the Kobe, but it’s legit, like, $100 a serving. So we opted for the $60 a serving meal. And it was LIFE CHANGING. It was so buttery, melt in your mouth, insanely delicious. I savored every bite. I never wanted the meal to end. They also served us some grilled veg, grilled garlic and a little bit o beef tongue. Yep, you read that right. I kind of tasted like pastrami. I enjoyed it. If you go to Japan, stuff your face with this! You can thank me later.

While researching fabric shops in Kyoto, my sister and I stumbled across a blog that mentioned a 400-year-old needle shop.My sister really wanted to go, so we set out on our scavenger hunt to find it. We were armed with vague directions and a photo of a hallway to turn down. It’s in the Shinkygoku shopping arcade, which feels like a vast labyrinth. We tried to ask for help, but Google’s not so great at translating “400-year-old needle shop.” Eventually we found it by studying the photo for clues (thanks, Crocs display!). Once you go down the hallway, you emerge to find this tiny, wooden house in the middle of a beautiful garden. It looks totally out of place, and you would never know it was there if you didn’t know what you were looking for (and even then, we nearly missed it). We popped in and picked up a few needles, just to be able to say that we’d purchased them at a 400-year-old needle shop, and then carried on with our fabric buying excursion.

One of the places I’d really been looking forward to visiting was Fushimi Inari. It’s orange pillars are so iconic. Upon seeing it in person, it did not disappoint. The pathway leading up to the temple is covered in bright orange arches that are in stark contrast to the surrounding greenery. We only walked about 1/3 of the way to the temple because it was up a hill and, I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this, REALLY FREAKING HOT. Had it not felt like I was dying, I feel like I could have spent all day exploring this gorgeous temple. Definitely a must do in Kyoto.

One of our other favorite things (I know, so many favorite things. Kyoto is amazing, guys.) was going to Arashiyama. It is a short journey to the outskirts of Kyoto. At one point you transfer from a subway car to an old timey looking rail car. The old timey car takes you to a small station. Upon making your way to the main street, you go left for the monkey park and right for the famous bamboo groves. We opted to do the monkey park first because monkeys. We read online that after you buy your ticket, it’s about a 10 minute walk uphill to get to the monkeys. The lady at the ticket booth told us it would be 20 minutes. Let me tell you, they were both wrong! I would say it took us nearly 45 minutes to get to the top. Uphill. Both ways. It was hotter than the devil with a fever, and guys, I’m not in the best shape. I legit almost started crying because I thought I was never going to make it. I just kept saying to myself, “These monkeys had better be effin cute!” Good news, guys. They were. I got a video of two little baby monkeys playing together. TWO. BABY. MONKEYS. PLAYING. Cute Factor 1000. The monkeys were just chillin. You’d be walking around and look up and suddenly realize that there was one right above your head. I will admit, the first time I saw one in the tree right above me, I did have a bit of a Congo flashback. But these guys were way smaller than the ones in the movie. And didn’t seem to want to kill any people. So there’s that. You couldn’t touch the monkeys, but you could get quite close. We saw a momma monkey breastfeeding her baby and they had both fallen asleep. ALL THE CUTE FACTOR! You  could feed the monkeys, but you had to go into a small building that had chicken wire for windows and the monkeys would climb up the outside and stick their hands in the chicken wire and you could give them the peanuts that way. Let me tell you, these monkeys do NOT mess around with their food. They are greedy, impatient little bastards. They will snatch those peanuts right out of your hands! Once we’d gotten our fill of the monkeys, we headed back down the mountain, which was much more pleasant than going up the mountain. We made our way to the bamboo groves, which were really tall, but totally crowded. We were so hot, tired and hungry, I think we spent a total of about 10 minutes there. I wish we’d felt a bit better so we could have explored it more, which is possibly the motto for this trip.

All in all, it was a great trip and we had an amazing time. I much prefer Kyoto to Tokyo (although Tokyo is still a worthwhile destination). If you go to Kyoto, stay near Shijo. Just trust me. Go to Musashi Sushi if you can, and definitely try waygu beef. Shell out for Kobe, if you really feel the need, but waygu is still a game changer. Go see the monkeys, but be prepared to work for it.

If you want to read about our first trip to Japan, click here.

For the first half of this trip, click here.

For more photos, check out my tumblr.


Japan, Part 2.1 (In Which We Went Back)

So recently I wrote about the trip we took to Japan last year. I don’t mean to brag, but now I’m going to tell you about our second trip to Japan. Like, in the same year we went. Guys, I think I’m getting the hang of this blogging business! Pretty soon I’ll be posting about things the same month they happen! But not yet. Baby steps.

As I mentioned in my last post, my sister came for a visit which coincided with my summer vacation. We decided to go to Japan a) because after the first trip I knew I wanted to spend more time there, b) because the whole time I was there I kept thinking, “Gee, I super wish my sister was here,” and c) because baby gets what baby wants. We decided to act like grown ups and used Air BnB instead of looking for hostels. It was our first time and it was a (mostly) pleasant experience. Except when goods are not as advertised, and you still end up in a hostel. That has no central air conditioning. So the minute you leave your room to, say, go to the bathroom or shower, you sweat your ass off. Because Japan is hotter than Satan’s sauna in the summer. Consider yourself warned.

We spent the first few days of our trip in Tokyo. Our Air BnB/hostel was in a new and (from what I’ve read) up and coming area of Tokyo called Shimokitazawa. It was a cute area, with lots of funky little shops we enjoyed exploring. Some places we explored twice because it’s a bit of a labyrinth and none of us are super great with direction or reading Japanese. We spent most of our time in Tokyo revisiting places from our first trip that I really wanted my sister to see, or sometimes just doing it properly (I’m looking at you, Meiji Jingu). We went back to Sensoji, which is still one of the coolest experiences for me. I bought ALL THE KOKESHI DOLLS. And even got my sister started on them. (I’ve always been a bad influence). Then we wandered around the Asakusa area, which seemed to have lost some of it’s luster since the first trip. Probably because we didn’t have that fresh-off-the-plane wonder in our eyes anymore. One evening we made our way to Tokyo Sky Tree, which didn’t seem that cool to me before we got there. But then we got there and it was SO COOL. I highly recommend going at night. It wasn’t super crowded, and the glowing purple of the tower looks stunning against the night sky. It’s all about the photo ops, guys (pics or it didn’t happen!). The elevators to the first observation deck are seasonally themed, and I super appreciate their lack of windows. I’m not one for being high up. The ones that go to the second observation deck, however, were trying to give me a heart attack. So I kept my eyes on the ceiling. Which also had a window. But it had a bright blue light lighting up the interior of the elevator shaft and that was pretty rad.

We also went back to Meiji Jingu and actually made it to the temple this time. It was kind of embarrassing how close we were last time, without actually making it. But totally worth it to see the kid with the backpack that looked like a decapitated lion. Then we made our way to the nearby Harajuku, which I had been dying to show my sister. She seemed…underwhelmed. She can be a hard sell. But we did discover that if you go to the end and cross the street, there’s a whole other street of shops to see. It seemed a bit higher end than Takashita dori. We discovered a quirky sticker shop call B-Side Label that has hundreds of originally designed stickers and other merchandise. I highly recommend popping in if you’re in the area. I got an awesome tote with a bunch of cute robots on it and it says, ” Biginning of the End.” I liked it until I saw the typo. Then I loved it.

We ate lots and lots of ramen and sushi which, despite the monotony, delighted my taste buds. We even went back to our favorite sushi joint at La La Terrace and made an even bigger mountain of plates! We popped by the Daiso in the same shopping center because Japanese Daiso > Korean Daiso. We intended to cram a bit more into our time in Tokyo than we actually did, but our plans were thwarted by the heat (and a little bit by laziness). And then we were off to Kyoto!

Check out more photos from our trip here.


Japan, Part One (Also Known as It’s a Good Thing We Went Back)

During summer, my sister came to for a visit that happened to overlap with my summer vacation. So we decided to hop on over to Japan for a week. We visited Tokyo and Kyoto and got fat on sushi. It was a wonderful trip. A trip which I will tell you about another day. Today I am going to tell you the tale of another trip to Japan, one that The Brit and I took last year. We’ll pretend that it’s because the Chuseok holiday is happening in Korea right now, which makes this the one year anniversary of our trip, and not because I was too lazy to write about it last year. I told you guys I was going to go full Tarantino…

Our first trip to Japan was a bit of a whirlwind, as we took it over a long weekend. We barely made our flight. We were running so late that we had to skip to the front of the line at security, and we were still the last two people to get on the plane. Which, as it turns out, is kind of embarrassing. I was beyond hangry, and didn’t think they would feed us on the relatively short flight, so I legit started crying once I sat down. Which was made all the more awkward by the fact that I had strangers on either side of me. When you’re the last two people to check in, you get the last two seats. And they might not be next to each other… Fortunately, despite the flight only being an hour and 20 minutes, they still fed us. Because no one wants to see me go DEFCON 5 hangry.

Here’s a protip for travelling to or from Japan: Make sure you are due to arrive/depart while the subway is still running. Because taxis are stupid expensive. We arrived in the middle of the night, and nothing was running. So we had the choice of waiting it out until morning or paying $100 for a 30 minute taxi ride. Though it pained us, we opted for the taxi. We were tired, y’all! We arrived at the Kangaroo Hotel in the Asakusa area quite late and it was very quiet, aside from Jiminy Cricket going crazy in the common area ALL. NIGHT. Apparently they are for good luck, but it’s bad luck when they’re right outside your door. The Brit gets cranky if he doesn’t get his beauty sleep, guys! Overall the hostel had a nice atmosphere; very modern. Although the bathrooms were on the second floor and you had to walk up the staircase of doom to access them. Though tiny, the rooms were in nice condition and the staff was very friendly and helpful (and English speaking!). Japan is low on space, so tiny is how it’s done. We were just happy we weren’t in one of those claustrophobia inducing capsule hotels, despite being the first time I’d slept in a bunk bed since elementary school. My favorite thing about the hostel was the hand drawn map of the Asakusa area on the wall. The biggest downfall was that it was a bit of a walk to the subway station, and the taxi fare for the five minute ride was $7. Overall, I’d still recommend staying there.

One the first day, we kept to the greater Asakusa area. We started out at Sensoji Temple, which was one of the highlights of the trip for me. The promenade leading up to the temple is lined with souvenir stalls selling ALL THE THINGS. And you guys, I needed ALL THE THINGS. But I only had enough room/space in my suitcase for SOME OF THE THINGS. Good thing I made another trip. I fell in love with kokeshi dolls – small wooden dolls painted in kimonos. On the first trip I bought two. I now own eight. Or nine. I’ve lost count. Once you make your way to the temple itself, you will see a small building on the right which has fortunes. I think you pay 100 yen, then you pick up a silver canister with chopsticks inside. You pull a chopstick and find the drawer with the matching character on it. The fortunes are inside the drawers. I drew a fortune titles “The Worst Fortune.” Naturally, The Brit got the best one. I’m not sure what this says about our future. They have racks where you tie on fortunes you don’t want to keep, so you can leave the bad ones behind you. Which is obviously what I did. And The Brit got a cool souvenir. Jerk. For dinner that evening, we went to one of the best sushi joints I’ve ever been to. I don’t know the name, but it’s on the second story of the La La Terrace near the Minami Senju train station. It’s kaiten sushi, which means it goes around on a conveyor belt. It is super cheap and beyond delicious, but there’s always a bit of a wait. For two people we spent less than $30, and that includes beer and our very full bellies.

The rest of the trip was a bit of a blur. We went to Akihabara, which is famous for comics and porn. There was a girl on the street in a sexy maid costume trying to lure people up to a cafe where all of the girls working there were in similar outfits. We wandered into a sex shop because Japan. Between how overwhelming the sex shop was, and how overwhelming the comic stores were, we didn’t end up staying long. We headed over to Shinjuku, where there is a wonderful craft store called Yuzawaya that I bought lots of fun fabric at. We also ventured to the fabric town at Nishi Niporri, but unfortunately many of the shops were closed. I still managed to find some good pieces at the few shops we popped into. We briefly visited Shibuya so we could see the world’s busiest intersection first hand. One evening we found ourselves in the Golden Gai – a couple of tiny alleys with very tiny bars. We were in one that only sat 6 people. But they were reppin Cali – Go Giants! Some bars have memberships (I think to keep foreigners out). But all are quirky and some are very foreigner friendly. Our favorite bar looked like a muppet on the inside. It had red, velvety walls and even eyes at one point.

We spent one day in the Harajuku area. We started off at Meiji Jingu – a temple perpendicular to Takashita Street. We wandered through the giant arches down the path which leads to a garden (which we mistook for the actual temple) and giant displays of sake and wine barrels. SO much alcohol. Just sitting there. With nobody drinking it. At least they were pretty to look at. Unfortunately we didn’t realize we’d missed the actual temple until we got back to Korea. Again, good thing we made another trip! After we finished up at Meiju Jingu, we headed over to Harajuku. We didn’t see too many Harajuku girls, but a few is still enough. It is an interesting place, y’all! I got a wonderful glittery case for my ipod, and The Brit and I got both of our sisters socks that say bitch all over them. We’re thoughtful that way. There were lots of clothing stores with all manner of interesting get ups. One wonderful store was filled with memorabilia from my childhood. And I discovered a clothing store called MONKI whose clothing interested me very little, but had adorable doll/pillows that kind of remind me of Ugly Dolls. I bought two. My mom mistakenly gave mine to my aunt who grew rather attached to it. Motto of this post – it’s a good thing we made another trip!

The one thing we did that we didn’t particularly enjoy was going to a building that was billed as being a great, cheap alternative to Tokyo Sky Tree in terms of seeing the skyline. I can’t remember what it was called, but it was really crowded and we didn’t get very good photos. We ended up going to Tokyo Sky Tree on our second trip and really enjoyed it. So…it’s a good thing we went back!

If you want to see pictures from our trip, go here. I’ll try to get round two up in a timely fashion. Try being the operative word…